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Catwoman and Cleopatra: Inkblots of an Age

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After Practical Cats, a reader asked me to summarize my Cleopatra theory as it pertains to Catwoman.  With shooting under way on The Dark Knight Rises, and Batman circles abuzz with speculation on what Christopher Nolan’s take will be, it seemed the perfect time.Rorschach Catwoman

Briefly: Cleopatra lived and died over 2,000 years ago, and what’s known about her life hasn’t changed.  There is the sensational Roman account, juicy but questionable material dating from a propaganda war with Augustus Caesar, and a drier but more flattering picture of her political accomplishments recorded by the historian Flavius Josephus.  That’s it.  It’s not like any new unauthorized biographies were unearthed in the 1300s, 1500s, or 1800s to account for the drastically differing images of her.  There is only one set of facts from which different ages have formed completely different Cleopatras: from “The Nile Slut” to a childlike innocent, from a murderous man-eater to a savvy politician, from a devoted mother to a tragic “slave to love.”   Obviously, they can’t all be right.  Obviously, what each era chooses to focus on—and what it chooses to ignore—says more about them than it does the real Cleopatra. 

Cleopatra and CatwomanLucy Hughes-Hallett’s fascinating Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions does a remarkable job analyzing each of these incarnations and what they reveal about the eras which romanticized and vilified her.  Not surprisingly, it is the spin each age puts on the sexual aspects of her story that is most telling about their attitudes about women in general, and women’s sexuality in particular.   

Like Cleopatra, Catwoman is a sex symbol who has spanned many generations and gone through many incarnations.  From her first appearance in Batman #1, the draw between male and female has always been the distinguishing feature of Bat/Cat encounters.  Tame and subtextual under the early comics code: Batman saw through Catwoman’s disguise in that first appearance by noticing her shapely legs. Amusingly brazen by the time Julie Newmar donned her claws and Adam West’s Batman declared, “You give me curious stirrings in my utility belt.”

Of course there is more to Catwoman’s appeal that the physical.  You can’t throw a batarang in mainstream comics without hitting a beautiful and voluptuous woman.  What made Catwoman particularly well-suited to the role as the Batman’s romantic foil was her playful free-spirited disposition.  In an era that was finally acknowledging that sex is fun, the Bat/Cat titillation reached its zenith in Batman #324 when Selina awoke naked in the Batcave after her costume had been torn to pieces.  Batman tosses her a replacement saying she was lucky he’d kept one of her old costumes in his trophy room, and she responds—just barely covering herself with the sheet—that she “got lucky in more ways than one.”

Approved by the Comics Code.  And that’s probably what made it so much fun: the tingle of being bad, of getting away with something a little naughty.  It is the appeal of Catwoman, and in scenes like that, the reader got a taste.

And therein lies one of the essential elements of a successful Catwoman portrayal that has often eluded DC Comics.  We can make a simple comparison of the merchandise dating from Denny O’Neil’s day as Bat editor, where it seemed to be a mandate that her features be distorted by a hostile snarl, to the turning point when a Japanese company, Yamoto Toys, released a limited edition figurine based on manga artist Kia Asamiya’s design.  The sexy come-hither pose and naughty grin sold out in days in many U.S. comic shops and was voted Sexiest Batman-related Action Figure by Wizard’s Toy Fare magazine.  After a second equally successful figurine from Yamoto, again featuring the Jim Balent costume with an appealing pose and smile, DC appears to have got the message.  Recent offerings of the Balent costume from DC Direct have certainly featured an attractive pose and naughty grin. 

 

 

Catwoman Action Figures and Figurines

 

 

But the detour into snarling hostility illustrates how, like Cleopatra, Catwoman has undergone reinvention after reinvention reflecting the insights, fetishes, or fears of those doing the re-imaging.  Consider her Bob Kane origin, from “The Secret Life of Catwoman,” as an airline stewardess who suffered amnesia after a plane crash.  (Yes, amnesia. It’s a comic book.)  In the 1940s and ’50s, stewardesses were incredibly glamorous figures.  Beautiful, svelte single girls, traveling the world, meeting exciting people and working side-by-side with pilots!  It is in this story that Catwoman’s real name is revealed to be Selina Kyle.  Selina meaning “daughter of the moon.”  Kane clearly gave his Catwoman a glamorous and romantic cachet befitting her status as the Queen of the Night in Batman’s world.  This Catwoman, despite her criminal activities, was far from evil.  She bargained away loot to save Robin from Joker, and on regaining her memory, worked with Batman to bring down a crime boss and ultimately her own criminal brother. 

The next origin revealed that the amnesia story was a lie.  Selina Kyle had been married to a rich man who beat her.  When she left him, he tried to ruin her.  Her first robbery was stealing back the jewelry he’d given her and, titillated by the thrill, she continued.  The attitudes expressed by this version of Catwoman are not at all difficult to decode, for the author puts it right in the text: Selina tells Batman she made up the amnesia story to get out of the life of crime because “I was thirty years old and I didn’t want to die without love… without children.”  That Selina does marry Bruce Wayne and has a child with him: Helena Wayne.  While modern sensibilities may kneejerk at the notion that every woman must pang for motherhood, I submit that the root idea that all humans, both men and women, want love is a timeless and valid one. 

Things took a bit of a turn when the in-your-face feminism of the ’60s sent the comics boys into a tizzy.  Consider the mentality of a writer who had the Green Lantern’s girlfriend become evil Star Sapphire for five days each month.  How does such a man respond to images on the news of women shouting for equality and burning their bras?  Well, Catwoman donned go-go boots and snarled about “The Battle of the Sexes” and how “No man would ever tame her,” and that same writer gave Batman a new enemy/love interest, a submissive Asian who “was good company even when she was quiet.” 

Yeah.  Seriously.  Amazing, isn’t it? 

The Catwoman of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is of a period that lost the most fundamental “Look, up in the sky” aspect of superhero comics—the wish fulfillment of a child, the adventures of characters we would all want to be if we could.  To fly, to be strong, to swing across the city on a silken Batline, to have exciting adventures in a world of larger-than-life color…  In the spirit of remaking all the known characters as damaged human beings that no sane person would ever want to be, Selina was a meek, repressed, overworked secretary whose boss killed her.  All of her “empowerment” was a reaction to oppression and victimization, but it should be noted that this is not really a gender attitude.  The men in Burton’s world fare no better. 

Of Frank Miller’s Year One and subsequent comics based on its Catwoman origin, all that any enlightened reader need do is look at the body of Miller’s work.  The sheer number of prostitutes, rapes, and castrations paint a vivid portrait of the man doing the writing and his attitudes, but just in case anyone doubts, Rob Bricken has taken the trouble to map it all out in 6 Hints that Frank Miller Might Have Issues with Women.   What all this says about Miller is—well, it’s Miller.  It doesn’t have to represent the rest of us.  We don’t have to be the generation that was so terrified of women’s sexuality they had to demonize it.  It was DC who let this guy with obvious issues about women’s sexuality define a women’s icon.  It is DC Comics who refuses to remedy or even admit that error.  It falls to other media to do so. 

Mr. Nolan, I’m looking at you.  The 21st century is eagerly waiting to see what “our” Catwoman will be.

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About Chris Dee

  • Greg Huneryager

    A pretty good article but Carol Ferris didn’t turn into Star Sapphire for five days every month. She would always be back to normal by the end of an issue and not show up for months or years with two exceptions. One was a two-issue story and the other was in the ’80s when she turned into Sapphire ‘permanently.’

  • http://nextbatmanbadguy.blogspot.com Bill

    Hmm… who is the submissive Asian villain? Could not have been a recurring character or I assume I’d know who it was.

    Anyway, we already do have the 21st century Catwoman, and it was, I think, pretty well done. Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke relaunched Catwoman’s solo series in 2001. It was forced by continuity to give her the prostitution backstory, but her costume was redesigned to be much more practical: ditch the purple for black, lose the tail, and add night vision goggles. Her hooker boots were replaced by the sort of boots one might actually wear for jumping around rooftops. Selina’s ridiculous Jim Balent bustline was replaced by a still sexy but fairly normal figure.

    Character-wise, she became a sort of antihero, protecting a neglected area of Gotham, going after a murderer of prostitutes (because the police don’t consider working girls worth protecting).

    Her runaway child prostitute friend from Miller’s Year One gets out of the street life, grows up and runs a bakery (I think) and is in a happy, non-exploitative lesbian relationship.

    I’m no expert in gender politics or whatever, but I think it reflected a pretty positive attitude towards women (and was quite entertaining too).

  • Bart

    Shocking…a comic book writer has problems with women. Duh.

  • Darla

    Someone drank the Kool-aid bigtime on Brubaker, Bill. Someone always does.

    Thank you for the reminder that Talia al Ghul was a way of telling girls to sit down and shut up. I remember that “good company when she was quiet” bit. My first WTF moment in comics.

  • The Zug

    The Balent costume was the best. I hope it comes back.

  • WandersNowhere

    Mmm. I don’t know. If a story is about an ex-prostitute whose best friend is an ex-child-prostitute who defends a seedy neighbourhood from murderers of prostitutes is completely positive and pro-feminist and not in any way exploitative, I’ll eat my own face.

    Catwoman isn’t supposed to be ‘normal looking’…or ‘broken’ or ‘damaged’. She’s supposed to be CATWOMAN. She’s supposed to embody playful, can’t-touch-this-stud sexuality and put a bee down Batman’s bat-briefs every time she locks eyes with him. THAT isn’t exploitative, that’s a powerful free-spirited woman using her god given gifts to get exactly what she wants. Usually, the jewels. Bravo, Chris, for once again pointing it out – and Cleopatra is an excellent parallel.

    A generation of comic book writers that finds the idea of a playful, saucy, confident catburglar who doesn’t have any major psychological issues (except maybe kleptomania) so disturbing they have to saddle her with the exact same tired background of angst, abuse and sexual exploitation they force on just about every ‘strong female character’…is saying something about itself. It’s a generation of Octavians that don’t even have the excuse of political gain to justify their character assassination.

    Let’s hope Nolan and Hathaway bring the depth to their new Catwoman that the previous films brought to Batman himself, Joker, and Harvey Dent, and finally rid us of this pointless ugliness.

  • http://nextbatmanbadguy.blogspot.com Bill

    I never said pro-feminist, nor did I say completely positive. Please don’t eat your own face.

    Your complaints about the lack of playfulness are in some ways true, but that is a trend of comics as a whole. “Grim and Gritty” has been the dominant tone in superhero comics for 20+ years. This is not a gender issue at all.

    We’re talking about a character who suffered through 15 years of being portrayed as either a prostitute/dominatrix or a walking pair of breasts (or both). Then a series comes along and tries to treat her like a real person, and a strong and intelligent one at that, I say it’s a good thing.

    I’m certain it’s not perfect, but when virtual every female character in comics has giant breasts and wears a ridiculously skimpy costume, is constantly posed for cleavage or ass shots, and is sometimes given “o-face” by artists tracing from pornography, or when the rape, torture, and murder of women is a frequent plot device used to motivate male protagonists… if you’re complaining about not the “right kind” of strong female character, I think your priorities are in the wrong place.

  • WandersNowhere

    Relax, Bill, I think we’re on the same side ;)

    I’m just trying to say I – like a lot of people – have never been uncomfortable with the whole prostitute backstory, which was an invention of Frank “I’ve never written a female character who wasn’t a stripper, a hooker, a rape victim, or all three” Miller. I’d prefer to see it politely buried, forgotten, never dug up again, rather than awkwardly written around.

    If the original Catwoman was a classy high-society lady with a penchant for theft who was ALSO witty, confident and strong, WITHOUT needing an angsty backstory where she was exploited and abused by men, why can’t we have that back?

  • WandersNowhere

    Er. Never been COMFORTABLE. I should not post while feverish ^^;; Gomen.

  • http://nextbatmanbadguy.blogspot.com Bill

    Technically, Miller has also written women who are essentially men with breasts. But I get what you mean.